2:00pm

Thu May 9, 2013
NPR Story

Buzz Aldrin's Case For A 'Mission To Mars'

Originally published on Fri May 10, 2013 2:40 pm

Sixty-six years after the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon. From that pivotal moment on, Aldrin has advocated for continued and expanded space exploration. Now, he argues that 66 years after the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base, Americans should establish a presence on Mars.

And not just for a single trip or a moment in history. In Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, Aldrin calls for systematic investment to establish a cycle of transportation and sustained, permanent settlements on the Red Planet. The storied astronaut talks with NPR's Neal Conan about why a presence on Mars is worth the investment.


Interview Highlights

On why space exploration is important, despite a budget-conscious political environment

"I think we're talking ourselves into this gloomsday period. What we need is leadership willing to look out into the future, and not, 'What's in it for me right now?' There's just too much of this ... groveling around, trying to get political favors for a particular district and not looking 20, 30 years into the middle of the 21st century.

"We have great opportunities in front of us, and I think we haven't done all that well in the past. And because of that, not only am I putting forth my own plan for the future, but I'm forming a foundation that should look at the evolution of space policy. Since the very beginnings of rocket travel, we've had a policy of some sort coming out of the executive branch, and then the legislative branch decides maybe how to oversee that, diddle around with it a little here or there. And in the process, they bring home the bacon to whatever constituency they represent.

"Not that that isn't a good idea. You certainly elect someone, and you expect them to do good things for the people who elected them. But if it's carried to an extreme, we are sacrificing the long-range objectives of a nation just so that somebody can keep jobs going and working on the same thing instead of new, innovative ideas that help to make us true leaders in space in the 21st century.

"There's no doubt who was a leader in space after the Apollo Program. Nobody came close to us. And our education system, in science, technology, engineering and math, was at the top of the world. It's no longer there. We're descending rather rapidly."

Why American's space exploration endeavors should be multinational

"We should've asked China to be a portion of the space station. We should've worked out ways that we can ... just give away the technology that we have that puts things up into space, with cooperation up above the atmosphere that's needed to help each other.

"We have a lot of information, a lot of things we can do without great expenditures of funds to help the other nations in their quest for prestige by putting their people on the moon. That will ... enable us to practice on the big island of Hawaii how you put things together, then do it at the moon for the other nations. Then we now know how to do it on Mars, from the moon of Mars. And when we get that done, we have a permanent base and we send people [there] with cycling orbits for permanent occupancy.

"The leader of a nation that is able to make a commitment to do that is going to go down in history for hundreds of thousands of years."

On civilian demand for space tourism

"Some people seem to think [there's sufficient interest in it]. Sir Richard Branson does — $200,000 apiece. He's got a lot of people signed up. There are other people that have progressive ways [to] do the same thing. There's an organization called Golden Spike that is going to land people on the moon.

"Now, I was very skeptical when I heard about that. What are you going to use to get there? How are you going to get there? Well ... you're not going to find that many billionaires, but if I understand what they do, they're interested in the countries that do not have a space program. They would like to have a role model that that country can afford to send to the surface of the moon. ...

"You may run out of countries that want to finance their people to go, but it's not the first business plan that has been conceived that looks like it ought to work, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I don't see the government wanting to do that. We already did that with big rockets and landers that landed people on the moon, and we ruled space at that time."

On how to power a Mars station

"Right now, we have an emphasis — maybe an overemphasis — on photovoltaic. There's a system of solar dynamic which reflects the incoming rays of the sun on a specific point that gets very hot. We circulate fluid through that point or focal point, and we use the coldness of ... reflectors that go in the opposite direction of the sun ...

"And if I could explain it, I'm not sure I or you would understand, but it does work to produce electricity. And I believe, from what I'm told and what people who are developing these things [have said], this will become much more efficient for supplying power as long as you're in a close vicinity of the sun.

"Now, certainly Mars is 1 1/2 times further away from the sun than the Earth is. It may turn out that nuclear energy is needed. The way to get these supplies to the base on Mars is to assemble them robotically from a position close by. Now, the reason I say that is ... over 10 years ago, we had two spacecraft, Spirit and Opportunity, on opposite sides of Mars. They were supposed to last 90 days. The first one kind of stopped moving after five years, and the other one is still operating.

"Now, the program manager, Steve Squyres, of these two programs has said, ... that what those two have done in five years ... could have been done in one week if we had human intelligence in orbit around Mars."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Sixty-six years after the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon. From that pivotal moment on, Aldrin has advocated for continued and expanded space exploration, and now he argues that 66 years after the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base, Americans should establish a presence on Mars.

Not just a single trip or a moment in history, he calls for systematic investment to establish a cycle of transportation and sustained, permanent settlements on the Red Planet. He's got a plan on how to develop the political will to commit to that ambitious goal and ideas about how to pay for it, too.

If you have questions for Buzz Aldrin about Mars and the feasibility of human exploration of space, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the technology that gives women the choice to freeze their eggs and reschedule motherhood. But first, Buzz Aldrin joins us here in Studio 42 to talk about his new book, "Mission to Mars." Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Well thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you, and reaching a lot of people out there.

CONAN: Well, as you describe it in the book, the technology to do all this is within reach, or close enough. At a time, though, of budget cuts and arguments that government is too small, how do you excite the American people enough to generate the political will for such a program?

ALDRIN: I think we're talking ourselves into this gloomsday period. What we need is leadership willing to look out into the future, and not what's in it for me right now. There's just too much of this graveling - groveling around, trying to get political favors for a particular district and not looking 20, 30 years into the middle of the 21st century.

We have great opportunities in front of us, and I think we haven't done all that well in the past. And because of that, not only am I putting forth my own plan for the future, but I'm forming a foundation that should look at the evolution of space policy. Since the very beginnings of rocket travel, we've had a policy of some sort coming out of the executive branch, and then the legislative branch decides maybe how to oversee that, diddle around with it a little here or there. And in the process, they bring home the bacon to whatever constituency they represent - not that that isn't a good idea.

You certainly elect someone, and you expect them to do good things for the people who elected them.

CONAN: Yeah. But you're...

ALDRIN: But if it's carried to an extreme, we are sacrificing the long-range objectives of a nation just so that somebody can keep jobs going and working on the same thing instead of new, innovative ideas that help to make us true leaders in space in the 21st century.

There's no doubt who was a leader in space after the Apollo Program. Nobody came close to us. And our education system, in science, technology, engineering and math, was at the top of the world. It's no longer there. We're descending rather rapidly.

CONAN: You talk about leadership, though. The past two presidents have both outlined ambitious programs and don't seem to be coming anywhere near to finding the funding to pay for it.

ALDRIN: Well, who's at fault there? We need a budget, and we need a budget that is accepted by the people. We need policies that are put forth. I can show a way to get there through the judicious use of foreign policy and the choices, the things that we've done in the past, and how we can make use of bringing people together in a cooperative way at the moon, so that each one can achieve what they would like to do.

For the most part, it's prestige for their individual country, just like it was for Russia, and just like it was for the United States.

CONAN: It was more than prestige that was behind the space race. That was not just to show off we've got the best and the brightest. You control the moon, you control the Earth. There was an existential threat there.

ALDRIN: Well, wait a minute? What do you mean, you control the moon, you control the Earth? I don't understand what you mean.

CONAN: There was great fear. There was a military aspect to this.

ALDRIN: There was.

CONAN: Yeah.

ALDRIN: OK. Well, I'm a military guy.

CONAN: You are. You were a jet fighter pilot. So you ought to know better than I do.

ALDRIN: And our bullets don't quite go that far.

CONAN: No, but there was an aspect of that competition that fueled - it was more than just...

ALDRIN: There was the technology that was developed by utilizing computers to solve difficult problems, utilizing medical developments that enabled us to take better care of our troops. Certainly, the miniaturization that went into nuclear weapons was used in the space program, not the other way around.

CONAN: Let's get to some of the technical aspects of this, which are - I'd have to say I had not considered them before - that a simple mission to Mars is pointless, you say, that there's - there's nothing in it. It's just an empty gesture. You call for gradual adoption of this circular transportation system, where you have shuttles going first between low - between Earth orbit and the moon and establishing a system there, and then from the moon to Mars.

ALDRIN: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: And what is going to be in it to justify the gigantic expense of all of this?

ALDRIN: Well, who says it's gigantic expense? We're establishing a transportation system that we use over and over and over and over again, instead of something leaving the Earth with all the things you need en route and what you're going to need there, and then do it again, build it all again. You don't want to do that. You want to reuse things. You want to have a system that swings by the Earth, and you join up with it as it swings by, and maybe all you need to do is to join up with a Mars lander.

Your radiation, your habitation, your communications, your long-term life support is onboard the cycling spaceship. And you make use of it, and five, six months later, you approach Mars, you separate the lander, and you make a landing. And the cycler keeps going around.

Now, I developed a cycler that came back to where it started from, in 1985. To my knowledge, nobody had done that before. They'd used gravity assist to swing by Jupiter and then go to another planet, use gravity assist there and keep going on and on. But until I decided, starting at the moon, that I knew when we left the Earth, we could be on a free-return trajectory, which meant that we left the Earth, and we'd circle around the moon and come back to the Earth. All right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALDRIN: Now, when you come back to the Earth, if you swing around the Earth and then go back out again, that's possible, isn't it?

CONAN: Yeah.

ALDRIN: Sure it is. OK. Well, it just so happens, the moon isn't going to be there. It's going to be about a third of the way around. So you do that twice.

I mean, it takes seven days to go around the moon and back. Now, two 10-day orbits, and then another seven, that's a cycling orbit. There are many other examples of a way to make that happen. Now, it happens that if you're interested in leaving the surface of the Earth to get to the surface of the moon, maybe a better way is the way John Houbolt came up with, and that's segmenting the missions into its necessary parts, not the way Dr. von Braun wanted to go to the moon, with a multipurpose crew vehicle that did everything.

CONAN: Yeah, one gigantic rocket.

ALDRIN: If you - yeah, and that rocket wouldn't be ready, so we had to use two Saturn Vs and Earth-orbit rendezvous.

CONAN: So, the same kind of segmented approach to a transportation system for Earth-moon-Mars, and the moons of Mars, as well.

ALDRIN: Well, but the commercial - the tourism people are the ones that are going to use an Earth-moon cycling system so that they can swing people by the front side or the back side. All they need to do is to join up with a cycler as it swings by the Earth.

CONAN: And there's going to be enough interest in space tourism to generate the kind of income to pay for that?

ALDRIN: Some people seem to think so. Sir Richard Branson does, $200,000 apiece. He's got a lot of people signed up. There are other people that have progressive ways that can do the same thing. There's an organization called Golden Spike that is going to land people on the moon.

Now, I was very skeptical when I heard about that. What are you going to use to get there? How are you going to get there? Well, the way that - you're not going to find that many billionaires, but if I understand what they do, they're interested in the countries that do not have a space program. They would like to have a role model that that country can afford to send to the surface of the moon. Doesn't that make sense? It makes sense to me. You may run out of...

CONAN: Billionaires.

ALDRIN: No. You may run out of countries that want to finance their people to go, but it's not the first business plan that has been conceived that looks like it ought to work, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I don't see the government wanting to do that. We already did that with big rockets and landers that landed people on the moon, and we ruled space at that time.

Are we ruling space in the future? No. We can't even take our own astronauts to our $100 billion space station. Why? Because the program to replace the shuttle in seven years didn't pan out. It wasn't the president's fault. He set forth a reasonable program to do what the accident board said, retire the orbiter at the end of 2010. The president said the same thing. President Obama added two more missions, but he essentially did the same thing.

But because the program was not implemented correctly, we didn't have a rocket for the spacecraft, and we didn't have a big, heavy rocket for the rest of it.

CONAN: To lift it. Yeah, yeah. Our guest today is Buzz Aldrin. If you've got a question for him about space or his plan for a mission to Mars, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Buzz Aldrin first made history walking on the moon. Since then, he's earned a doctorate at MIT, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, served on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society. He's even delved into pop culture, playing himself on NBC's "30 Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) The moms were right. There's no such thing as Astronaut Mike Dexter. What am I doing?

ALDRIN: I'm sorry if I've disappointed you. Would you like to yell at the moon with Buzz Aldrin?

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Yes, please.

ALDRIN: I own you.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) You dumb moon.

ALDRIN: I walked on your face.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Don't you know it's day? Idiot!

CONAN: He's also the author of a new book, "Mission to Mars." So if you have a question for him about Mars and space exploration or other adventures, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can find us on Twitter @totn. And let's get a caller in. This is - go to Jay, and Jay's with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

JAY: Yes. It's an honor to talk to you, Mr. Aldrin. My question is, I was wondering - OK, I've got the whole roundabout system, the whole bus system going to the moon. I was wondering about the propulsion systems that you would use to go from the moon to Mars.

ALDRIN: Well, you don't actually go from the moon to Mars. You have a cycling system that swings by the Earth. You intercept it, wherever the moon happens to be; you don't care. It swings by the Earth, and you intercept it, and you ride that cycling system, which in my version consists of two interplanetary vehicles, side by side, connected for their redundancy. And if you need to, you can join up another one and make it three.

CONAN: And what would power that cycler?

ALDRIN: What would power it? The gravity assist. Once you get it in motion, you just need to trim it a little bit and keep it on its navigable course, and it keeps going. It does not need propulsion once it gets underway. Now, my initial discovery of this was back in 1985, and since the Earth catches up with the moon every 26 months after - I'm sorry, catches up with Mars every 26 months, Mars has made one revolution and a little bit, two months' worth, and the Earth has made two revolutions, catching up with Mars at the right point.

And when it does that, the cycler swings by the Earth and heads toward Mars, getting there in five to six months. It then swings by Mars, and the original cycler to happen during one cycle period of 26 months proceeds on outward and comes back to the Earth in 21 months, at just the right angle, just the right speed and altitude to swing by the Earth, and the Earth bends its orbit back to Mars again.

And it keeps doing this time and after time. Now, we've made some improvements on this through the Purdue University and some of the graduate students, but the cycle of swinging by one planet, then another, then back to the other one, this particular improvement doesn't bring it back right away. It brings it back for the one after that opportunity. So you have an opportunity with two cyclers to go on the first, third, fifth, seventh opportunities.

And it takes more time in between, and with that more time, your swing-bys at Earth and Mars are much, much less fuel required to get on and to get off. And besides, you have another swing-by of the Earth for replenishment of supplies on the cycler, without putting people on or off. And a year and a half later, it comes by again, and makes the transit of five to six months to Mars.

This is a tremendous improvement. And now you have two cyclers operating every other opportunity, and that's better than one cycler trying to do everything, in case something goes wrong. At least you have a continuing controls - space transportation. And the nation that leads space transportation is going to lead the world of cislunar space and solar-system space.

CONAN: Jay, you get it?

JAY: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much. That was - that's very interesting. I loved it. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Colin(ph), Colin with us from Austin, Texas.

COLIN: Hi. My question is I know there's currently a corporation looking to mine asteroids. Could the same be done on Mars, and possibly generate more revenue by the resources we could find there?

ALDRIN: I'm sure it could be. There is a commercial company called Planetary Resources that would like to acquire the resources that are on asteroids. And for years, we've known that asteroids are made up of such-and-so minerals. And I guess the assumption has been that if we go to an asteroid, fine. We can probably go back in a year or two to the same asteroid. Wrong. It doesn't work that way. You can't go back as quickly as that.

The closer it is to having its average altitude, which is called the semi-major axis, the closer that is to Earth, the slower it's going to get ahead of the Earth before it comes back again. If it's outside the Earth, the slower Earth is going to move ahead of it, or it's going to move behind the Earth to make the next pass.

Now, in my submission of what we should be doing, called the Unified Space Vision - instead of President Bush's vision for just exploration, because I include exploration, science, development, commercial and security.

CONAN: And one of the most interesting parts of the book, I have to say, is the extent to which commercial companies are involved and invested in space travel, in space exploration.

ALDRIN: They certainly have a way of being able to be more efficient than the way governments operate without the drive of the private motive.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Colin.

COLIN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mark, and Mark's with us from Horse Island in Alaska.

MARK: Greetings. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: It's an honor. And thank you for your service to your country and your species, sir. I was thinking about in your entire system and your launch of the structure, your multiple cyclers, is there an opportunity here to - I say let's go right now, but some people will, of course, be looking at cost. Is there some sort of way that we can intertie planetary security against comets and asteroids with your system, as well? And I'll take your answer off the call, or off the air.

CONAN: Thanks very much. You do mention this in the book, but after Chelyabinsk and the meteor that hit there, that's certainly revived people's interest in being - having the capability of deflecting, maybe, some asteroids.

ALDRIN: The key to it is knowing what is where and how is it moving, what is its future path going to be? And we're going to get better and better doing that. That is a tracking demand. And the better our telescopes and other things are in tracking, the more lead time we will have. It's a little bit uncertain just what a spacecraft going to an object that may in a year, two, three, pose a danger to the Earth, it's a little bit uncertain as to exactly how we can change its path. Some people think that the gravity of the spacecraft moving away can also tug the spacecraft...

CONAN: Tug the asteroid, you mean?

ALDRIN: Tug the asteroid. Yes, I'm sorry. It's kind of hard to push something that may be rotating. You may disturb whatever it is from just barely missing to a direct hit. So you certainly need to know what you're doing to provide planetary defense. I was at a meeting in Flagstaff where we were talking about that. And we're talking about evacuation. We're talking about homeland security.

It would be nice if we could see something out there, and we can go and change its course. We're not quite at that point yet.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Patrick, Patrick with us from Denver.

PATRICK: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PATRICK: I was wondering how you would power a station that would be on Mars. Would you send fuel on your rotating orbit system, or would you try to mine something from the planet?

ALDRIN: I believe that, right now, we have an emphasis - maybe an overemphasis - on photovoltaic. There's a system of solar dynamic which reflects the incoming rays of the sun on a specific point that gets very hot. We circulate fluid through that point or focal point, and we use the coldness of reflected - reflectors that go in the opposite direction of the sun.

And from these differences, we use a particular thermodynamic cycle. And if I could explain it, I'm not sure I or you would understand, but it does work to produce electricity. And I believe - from what I'm told and what people who are developing these things - this will become much more efficient for supplying power as long as you're in a close vicinity of the sun.

Now, certainly Mars is one and a half times further away from the sun than the Earth is. It may turn out that nuclear energy is needed. The way to get these supplies to the base on Mars is to assemble them robotically from a position close by. Now, the reason I say that is about - over 10 years ago, we had two spacecraft, Spirit and Opportunity, on opposite sides of Mars. They were supposed to last 90 days. The first one kind of stopped moving after five years, and the other one is still operating.

Now, the program manager, Steve Squyres, of these two programs has said, verbally and in writing, that what those two have done in five years - the trek that they've done, what they've looked at, controlled from Earth one day at a time could have been done in one week if we had human intelligence in orbit around Mars.

I want to emphasize the importance of getting human intelligence close to where the critical robots are that you're trying to assemble. Even from the Earth, to assemble something at the moon with a second-and-a-half time delay and a second and a half to come back again, it is preferable to have something where the neutral points of gravity between Earth and Mars exist on the far side, about 50,000 miles.

CONAN: The Lagrange points.

ALDRIN: Lagrange point, L2 and L1, about 40,000 miles toward the Earth. So since we're interested in the dark craters that receive no sunlight on the far side south pole - the Aitken basin and Shackleton crater - it gets extremely cold in some area that never sees sunlight, 20, 40 degrees from absolute zero, Kelvin. That's the coldest spot, so I'm told, in the entire solar system.

So when asteroids, comets or whatever it is crash into that crater, they consist of ice. We've detected that there are ice crystals there. I don't believe we should send commercial people with pick and shovel to dig that up. I think Caterpillar can come up with a very nice system of doing a commercial task, not the government. The government may help assist the recovery of water and the transportation of water out to a fuel depot where we can turn it into hydrogen and oxygen.

CONAN: We're talking with Buzz Aldrin about his new book, "Mission to Mars." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And an email question from Matt(ph) in Oakland, and this is in capital letters: Why? And please no fuzzy-headed talk about the destiny of mankind.

ALDRIN: If you don't want to talk about the destiny of mankind, you might as well hide your head in the sand. We are all about improving life here for those that come after us. That's how we got what we have today is because people worked hard. It's because President Kennedy said, we do these things not because they're easy, but because they are hard. And as a result, we got to the moon before the Soviet Union did.

I'm a military man, and I really believe that that disappointment of a country that had lots of peasants craving for help, and they had nuclear weapons to induce a M.A.D. society, mutual assured destruction, and they used those rockets to have a prestige-type space program. But they knew that their industry could not match the industry of the United States.

When President Reagan said, I think we're going to build a defense against your missiles, and Gorbachev decided that it was time to call a halt to this fantasy of Khrushchev's that the Soviet Union would bury us, we had a far greater technological, economical background, and they knew it, and we knew it.

CONAN: And we just have a minute left, but the vision that you lay out for the exploration of space, you see this as an inclusive mission, not something that excludes or seeks to beat out China, for example. We shouldn't have a race with China, you say.

ALDRIN: No. Not at all. We should have asked China to be a portion of the space station. We should have worked out ways that we can adequately - or just give away the technology that we have that puts things up into space, with cooperation up above the atmosphere that's needed to help each other.

We have a lot of information, a lot of things we can do without great expenditures of funds to help the other nations in their quest for prestige by putting their people on the moon. That will label - enable us to practice on the big island of Hawaii how you put things together, then do it at the moon for the other nations, then we now know how to do it on Mars, from the moon of Mars. And when we get that done, we have a permanent base and we send there people with cycling orbits for permanent occupancy. The leader of a nation that is able to make a commitment to do that is going to go down in history for hundreds of thousands of years.

CONAN: Buzz Aldrin, thanks very much. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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